20 Years of BEAM Technology

A little while ago we received an email from an observant Mr. Pavel Ryabinkov, the site-admin of www.myROBOT.ru, who was asking us to relay a question to Mark Tilden:

Could you answer, can it be considered the official date of birth BEAM-robotics November 10, 1989?I was basing this question on the message Brian O. Bush:
“The first BEAM bot was “Solaroller 1.0″.  It was invented Nov 10, 1989 in Waterloo, Ontario at the University of Waterloo MFCF Hardware Lab (after hours) by Mark W. Tilden. It was made from two dead calculators, two dead Phillips cassette mechanisms, and several parts from Laser-printer cartridges”.
http://faq.solarbotics.net/oscillate.htmlI would also ask whether the celebrated 20th anniversary of BEAM-robotics, which will be held November 10, 2009. I would appreciate your attention to this matter.

To which, Mr. Tilden replies: Hi Pavel.
Why, yes it will be the twentieth anniversary of BEAM next Tuesday, Nov 10, 09. Thanks for bringing it to my attention. So busy at the moment it would have completely slipped by. Here’s a little more background if you wish to post it somewhere.The first BEAM robot was Solarover 1.0, built after I attended an Oct 29, 1989 lecture by Rod Brooks at the University of Waterloo, Ontario, Canada. Dr. Brooks laid out his then-fashionable “Subsumption architecture” design for robot control that, although simpler than conventional AI, was still strongly computationally based. I remember impertinently asking “if simpler works, then how low could one go?”. Dr. Brooks answered that he was certain more complexity was needed for machine competence than not. I had evidence otherwise, but didn’t press the point.Fortune favoring the ready mind, that lecture just catalyzed concepts, skills, and designs I’d considered for many years. Are there minimal, elegant, efficient, low cost solutions to autonomous robot control? How long would it take to proctor real-world autonomous robots from “single cell” organisms to human form competence using guided design? In the months that followed, the tenements of “Biomorphic design” (the science behind the educational BEAM outreach) came about in a flurry of bot building, IEEE lectures, Usenet posts, and late-night contemplations.

An innate coffee addiction also helped significantly, blessings be to the bean.A well oxidized datestamp.Solarover 1.0 came about as an experiment to see just how inexpensively one could build a light-powered. light seeking autonomous rover from junk parts, and “trick” it to do simple floor cleaning as a result of its Braitenberg-inspired wanderings.

The first of many, I went on to build dozens of similar robots based on the primitive Solarengine neurons that year, which led to the BEAM International Robot games, international lectures, the 1992 Santa Fe Artificial Life conference (lecturing alongside Brooks), publications, books, TV, kits, Solarbotics, Los Alamos National Laboratory research, NASA, and a broad line of WowWee robots which have sold around 20 million units to date (not forgetting the thousands of hand-built robots by colleagues, enthusiasts, and steampunks internationally).

Biomorphic on a PCB, color-coded for rapid prototypingThis Christmas will see the presentation of the fast and funny Joebot humanoid on toy shelves worldwide. Walks, talks, sees, listens, all for less than the cost of a single Asimo-class Superservo. The Joebot prototype was entirely BEAM controlled before the behaviors were sampled into processor waves for mass manufacture: the Biomorphic Nervous network comprising less than 80 transistors in a symmetric, self-organizing array of custom-made printed circuit boards.

Best of all I have answers my research questions from what seems a lifetime ago.

A handful of transistors (with the added support of good friends and colleagues) are all you need.

Yes Virginia, there are beautiful, elegant solutions to making things move.

Twenty years.

Some compulsion required.


Mark W. Tilden
Robotics Physicist
Nov 5, 2009

Inexcusably, I was very involved in getting ready for the STAO.org teacher’s conference, and simply didn’t get everything ready in time. That was a mistake, as it is BEAM that made us (funny that, as we usually are the ones who make BEAM). Still, here we are, a humble 20 years later after Mark’s first design into building something simple, cool, and geeky.Let’s celebrate! We’ve brought out the popular Junkbots and solar cell bundles. Not only that, but they and other popular Solarbotics kits and parts bundles are 15%-35% off until the end of the month!

A tip of the hat to Mr. Tilden – thanks for sharing your technology with the rest of the world. It’s been a fun ride!